Angel Olsen Reveals the Albums That Made Her One of Indie's Most Promising Stars

Amanda Marsalis
Angel Olsen

Angel Olsen -- who blends country folk with a deep-seated love of soul and R&B on My Woman (Sept. 2, Jagjaguwar) -- isn't one to shy away from self-examination: "I'm trying to project a part of myself through my art," she says. The 29-year-old reflects on the albums that shaped her and influence her approach to writing. 

Beneath Olsen's music recs, check out our Q&A with the Asheville, NC, resident. 

Roger Miller, A Tender Look at Love (1968)

"Roger Miller is hilarious. But this is his slowed-down, self-actualized album. He's confronting himself in these songs, pulling back the curtain and saying, 'I'm sincere and genuine, even if I'm laughing and having a good time.' I can relate to that."

Bettye Swann, Don't You Ever Get Tired (Of Hurting Me) (1969)

"Bettye's voice is like an organ that acts as a huge percussive instrument. It feels like you are next to her on a pillow. On [2012's] Half Way Home, I tried that with different songs. It doesn't work for everything, but it's definitely an interesting approach."

Candi Staton, I'm Just a Prisoner (1969)

"I found this in winter 2009 in Chicago while riding the train to work at 6 a.m. to open a cafe, depressed. I didn't have money to buy recording gear. It's so undeniably real and unafraid to be sincere. To me, that is powerful songwriting."

Donny Hathaway, Donny Hathaway (1971)

"Donny had a spiritual, soulful vibe, as though he cultivated his talents in church. You feel that listening to him."

Brian Eno, Here Come the Warm Jets (1973)

"People always try to push albums on you, but I'm stubborn; I like to discover on my own. I knew one day Brian Eno would make sense to me. One day he did. I drove around Asheville with the windows down and cried to this album. That was life-changing."

You’ve often been labeled as a country-folk singer. But in listening to My Woman I hear so many more diverse influences -- big-ticket pop, 70’s A.M. gold, classic rock -- coming to the fore.

I love '50 country and dance country -- like Kris Kristofferson. Is that country? I dunno. It’s on the line. I don’t really consider myself country. I’m inspired by that kind of songwriting because it has a bit of levity and a bit of balance. It also addresses something very real. I appreciate that in films, too. A really good film to me is something that can address sincerity without overdoing it while also stopping and pausing for laughter.

Does it bother you to be talked about as having pop sensibilities?

I’m inspired by pop songs. That can stick with me. It reminds me to keep a balance. To write a pop song means to write something simply profound. I can create my own version of that thing.

Is modern pop of interest to you?

I don’t listen to a lot of modern music. I try to stay away from it. I don’t want to become aware of those things. I’m so protective of accidentally ripping off someone that’s modern. I’d rather rip people from the past and regurgitate it and stylize it myself and make it my own.

You’re not afraid to go more avant-garde and stretch out sonically on the second half of My Woman.

I think some of [those songs] might not be as accessible but that’s fine. I’m totally realizing that there are two different kinds of listeners. Listeners [who enjoy] Side B might be a little bit older or maybe they’ve had more experiences in life at a young age or maybe they appreciate longer music for whatever reason. There are different people that are going to listen to different things for different reasons. And I can’t expect that all of my fans will be there and stick around for that. I’m really excited to play these songs live. I had rehearsals and we’re still figuring it out. But I’m so impressed with how big the sound is in rehearsals. We’re going to play all the upbeat fast, catchy songs of course. But we’re going to get to a point two years in at a festival where we’re just like “Alright, the next two songs are going to take up 30 minutes.”

I find your voice to be moving in fascinating, not necessarily conventionally pretty directions on this album.

It’s not always about sounding beautiful. It’s about the words. It’s about intent. It’s about attitude. It’s about the cadence and when you land on a word or pause. So many parts of the voice are beautiful and are about capturing a feeling and inviting you in. It isn’t about someone’s ability to hit a note. When I’m mixing a record I want my voice to be present and on this one it is more. But balancing that with also not making the band so weak and too far away is always hard. It’s not about the band overtaking my voice in some songs; in some songs the voice needs to be upfront. So listening to this record it’s more like an audio obsession. I want to go into a studio and talk to people about that recording style and figure out how we can do that in my own work. It’s so random and strange but it works so well. I’ve been trying to put a little safety on my voice but I still like affects. I’m still going to use them when I can.

From a lyrical perspective your single “Shut Up Kiss Me,” is one of the most intriguing I’ve heard in some time. The narrator veers from optimism (“We could still be having some sweet memories”) to concession (“It's all over baby, but I'm still young”) all in a matter of quick breaths. And yet the majority of attention was paid to the fact you were wearing a silver wig in the video.

I’m tired of feeling bitter about how irrelevant other people’s images are that they’re projecting on my music. I want to take control of that. It’s about being in control as much as I can. So I gathered the people I know I love who happen to be in the industry and we work together on it and then we release it into the world and the first interview question is “Why the wig? Why are you creating a character for yourself? Are you afraid to be yourself now?” All I can think is “You’re missing the point.” The wig was an afterthought. I didn’t have a stylist so I had to think about consistency. David Bowie died and I wanted to celebrate being a character while being myself at the same time. That’s basically what music is to me. It’s not me creating some sort of persona. That’s not my intent. If we could just dare each other to look farther.

And yet when you are performing it almost seems as if you inhabit the characters of each of your songs.

I want to live in the songs and make them come alive. Some of the songs I’ve written are sad so in some ways they are a mantra or a bear trap that I’ve created. I have to become a sad character when I sing them. Or sometimes I feel like to be effective in performance I need to test myself and see if I can still live in that song and be a character in that song. Even if in reality before that performance I’m having a good time: I’m watching Louis C.K., I’m watching Stranger Things, I’m reading a book, I’m having a good conversation with a friend I haven’t seen. But the moment I’m on that stage I am “White Fire.” I am Burn Your Fire For No Witness. I am My Woman.

A version of this article originally appeared in the Sept. 3 issue of Billboard.